Many believe that independence from fossil fuels is a
fantasy, given the current state of alternative energy technology. While
technologies have a long road ahead before seeing commercial use, it is too
easy to overlook -- intentionally or unintentionally -- one long-standing
bastion of the alternative energy field: nuclear power.
There is revived interest in this time-proven, existing
technology that could satisfy much of the power demand in the U.S. and
abroad. The greatest obstacle to this interest is the reality that when
people think nuclear power, fears about safety and nuclear waste typically are
among the first thoughts to come to mind.
Few realize the advances in containment, safeguard measures,
and fuel recycling that make nuclear
accidents in modern well-maintained plants a thing of the past and yield
plants so safe they could stand up to full
onslaught of a major earthquake with almost no environmental
contamination. These advances have also quietly improved the efficiency
of nuclear plants worldwide, making their energy more
affordable and easier to implement.
facilities don't just provide alternative energy, either; they also provide
isotopes invaluable to modern medical diagnosis and treatment. These
isotopes are used for everything from diagnosis of cardiovascular maladies to
providing radiation treatment for cancer patients.
Cautiously, interest in nuclear power and applications is peaking in the
U.S. The exciting result of this interest can be seen in the recently
announcement of the application for the first
new U.S. nuclear plant in 30 years, submitted by NRG Energy. Now the
U.S.'s northern neighbor, Canada, is looking to follow by reopening a closed
plant and resuming its nuclear efforts.
The recently reopened reactor is in the Chalk River Laboratories, located in Ontario, northwest of Ottawa. The long-standing facility,
which was opened in 1944, became the first facility outside the U.S. to
maintain a sustained working nuclear reaction in 1945. The site's history
exemplifies the growing pains that at one time threatened to kill the nuclear
The site's plants and laboratories were marked by two
significant accidents in 1952 and then again in 1958. The facility is
perhaps unceremoniously, best known for the possibly origination of the
vernacular "crud" which is thought to be possibly derived from the
acronym for Chalk-River Unified Deposit, deposits found by scientists on early
test fuel at the plant.
However, over time Chalk River cleaned up its "crud", adding modern
safety upgrades and building new facilities that were significantly
overhauled. The site was and remains chiefly a scientific test facility
-- although Canada has multiple other reactors that produce around 150 TWh a
The Chalk River site is incredibly important, though, to the
medical field as it home to a plant which produces radioisotopes used in a
broad variety of medical applications. It produces two thirds of the
world's technetium-99, an important isotope used as a radioactive tracer.
It is estimated that fifty percent of the world's supply of this and all other
isotopes come from this plant and over 25 million diagnosis worldwide a year
are thanks to isotopes from this plant. The facility is expanding, and is
in the process of building two new MAPLE
reactors and a processing facility to increase its production.
The existing plant was closed on November 18 for routine maintenance, which was
supposed to last only to Nov 23. Chalk Creek Laboratories’ plans hit a
roadblock when the shutdown was extended by Canada's safety commissions which
demanded the plant replace an emergency power system to the reactor's cooling
pumps. Many saw this move as an attempt to stall the plants operation and
or close it, as the site already has extensive safeguards.
The result was a landmark example for the necessity of these
facilities -- over 8,000 patients in the last month were unable to receive
needed treatment or diagnostic procedures due to the shortages.
Now, Canada's legislative body, the House of Commons has passed
emergency legislation to reopen the path and resume Canada's nuclear
efforts. The legislation came amid a contentious debate between the
Liberal party, who fought hard to block the reopening, and their opponents -- a
unified front from the Bloc Québécois, Conservative Party, and the National
Democratic Party -- who aimed to avert a serious worldwide medical crisis.
The Liberal party's Omar Alghabra sardonically remarked, "Will the
minister [of natural resources] or the prime minister, for that matter, tell
Canadians what will happen if there's a nuclear accident?"
The Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper, responded, "There will be
no nuclear accident -- what there will be … is a growing crisis in the medical
system here in Canada and around the world if the Liberal party continues to
support the regulator obstructing this reactor from coming back on line."
The Conservatives managed to gain support from many Liberal party members and
have passed the bill for emergency reopening through to the Liberal controlled
Senate, where it also received the necessary approval.
The plant restarted on Sunday, and will soon provide relief to the isotope
deprived medical community.
The debate marks a growing conviction in the U.S. and Canada that Nuclear Power
and technology can and should be safely adopted to treat both medical and
energy woes. Whether such
sentiment withstands the wrath of critics remains to be seen.